Dan Le Batard has had discussions about the possibility of moving his ESPN radio show exclusively to SiriusXM, The Big Lead has learned from two people with knowledge of the news. Unauthorized to speak publicly on the matter, they requested anonymity. What happens next will obviously be of interest to the engaged listeners of the Dan Le Batard Show with Stugotz, and could also be construed as a bellwether of sorts as to whether and to what extent this platform–highly valued by John Skipper’s ESPN–can similarly exist under new boss Jimmy Pitaro’s orbit.
Le Batard’s contract with ESPN expires early this summer, and there are a number of possibilities about what will happen. He could be given the resources to build out his own SiriusXM station. Le Batard could also start out on Mad Dog Radio, and he and the company could gauge momentum for a little while before deciding whether to expand to a full station. This was the template successfully followed recently by Barstool Radio on the Rush channel before they got their own station. Finally, it’s also possible — likely, even — that his radio show remains at ESPN.
A spokesperson for ESPN declined to comment, and a spokesperson for SiriusXM did not respond to a request for comment. Le Batard referred a request for comment to his agent Trace Armstrong, who handles his negotiations, and Armstrong did not respond to a voicemail or text messages seeking comment.
Le Batard was especially close to former ESPN president John Skipper, and has said on-air that he did not go to work for the company, but to work for Skipper. Can he be sure he will maintain the same level of creative and journalistic autonomy with Jimmy Pitaro’s regime?
A son of Cuban refugees, Le Batard is resolute about having freedom of speech. This takes several forms. It is the freedom to engage in frivolity that has nothing to do with sports. This could be lengthy interviews with various pop culture figures or a weekly spot with zoologist Ron Magill. It could also be steering the show’s arc in a character-driven conversation with his co-host Jon “Stugotz” Weiner and the rest of what they refer to as the shipping container, which includes producers Mike Ryan, Chris Cote, Roy Bellamy, Allyson Turner, and Billy Gil.
More significantly, it also means journalistic freedom. ESPN will always have an inherent conflict as its news arm covers the same sports leagues that it partners with for broadcasting rights. John Ourand covered that earlier this week in Sports Business Journal with news about the NFL. A couple months ago, Le Batard grilled MLB commissioner Rob Manfred about Derek Jeter’s systematic dismantling of the Marlins roster. Manfred was condescending, made proclamations that documents later publicized by the Miami Herald indicated to be untrue, and complained to ESPN management about the spot.
Undoubtedly, he would have more freedom of expression on satellite radio. Nevertheless, in reporting this story, the indications I got were that the people in charge of content at ESPN are in Le Batard’s corner when it comes to continuing to do his show his way, which is more latitude than nearly everyone else at the company. However, we’d have to observe when push comes to shove how they respond to circumstances when Le Batard treads near the ever-roaming line of what they’d prefer he’d not do. If the NFL powers that be ever took direct issue with him to his bosses like Manfred did, what would happen?
There are a number of questions beyond that. Could he continue to do Highly Questionable with his father, Gonzalo, and rotating co-hosts on television – which generally gets more viewers than SportsNation, The Jump, and NFL Live which come before it; and less than Around the Horn and Pardon the Interruption which come after — and have a radio show on SiriusXM? For what it’s worth, there is a precedent with Stephen A. Smith, who for a couple years hosted a show on Mad Dog Radio while he was on First Take.
What would happen with Le Batard’s TV simulcast? If he were on Mad Dog Radio as opposed to having his own station, what would happen with the local hour of his radio show? Further, along the lines of his relentless desire for freedom of speech, Le Batard is highly concerned with the situation of everyone else on his show. Their interests borderline outweigh his own. What circumstances going forward would be the best for them?
Interestingly, one thing that Le Batard has said many times in the past, at various times pertaining to Bill Simmons, Colin Cowherd, Skip Bayless, and others, is to warn about the hazards of leaving ESPN.
“The ego of these guys is such that they don’t believe they’re choosing money over winning,” Le Batard said on his radio show in 2016. “They believe they are going to make the difference. It’s happening right now in the sports opinion business. I told Colin Cowherd not to leave this spot. We were having conversations — now I’m revealing private conversations that I shouldn’t be — even though it would have benefited us, I was telling Colin Cowherd I don’t think you leave. You leave, you’re going to get lost, you’re going to do it for money and no one’s going to know where to find you. We don’t do this to have your voices stuffed in a drawer; we do this to be heard.”
Le Batard could not have envisioned leaving ESPN for somewhere else at that time in large part because he could not envision leaving an ESPN helmed by John Skipper. It will be interesting to observe how this all shakes out.